The Indian government used the pandemic to craft a political image and failed to save lives

14 September 2021
A man experiencing breathing problems lies on a stretcher as he waits for treatment inside an emergency ward of a government-run hospital amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in Bijnor district, Uttar Pradesh on 11 May 2021.
Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
A man experiencing breathing problems lies on a stretcher as he waits for treatment inside an emergency ward of a government-run hospital amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in Bijnor district, Uttar Pradesh on 11 May 2021.
Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Why did most Indians find themselves alone and without state support while facing illness, death, loss of livelihood, displacement and poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic? It is because the Indian government’s response at every stage was primed by a “compulsive need to maintain a positive political image,” argue journalist Vidya Krishnan and public health specialist Sarah Nabia, in a forthcoming anthology A View From The Margins. The anthology has writings by forty authors who have documented the first year of the pandemic in India. The book will be published by Manohar Booksin November 2021.

In the following excerpt from a chapter in the anthology, Krishnan and Nabia trace the Indian government’s decisions, from March 2020 to the second half of 2021, to find that politics eclipsed evidence-based policy in its actions.  

On 3 February 2020 a weekly report from National Centre for Disease Control recorded three positive cases of COVID-19 in India, all from Kerala, one of the few states diligently screening people at airports. The NCDC, an agency with most expertise to track the virus, would not publish a single report for the rest of 2020. As of August 2021, around four million Indians may have died from coronavirus, according to a study released by Centre for Global Development, while official figures have under-reported deaths by at least a factor of ten and the government celebrates its “successful handling” of the first wave of the pandemic in the report Chasing the Virus: A Public Health Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic In India. The central government took on the difficult task of organising a pandemic response in a developing country like India—where even in non-emergency times the health system lacks the capacity to cater to populations in rural and conflicted areas—and made it harder still. 

The only way to mount an effective response was through meticulous planning, coordination, and cooperation between the scientific and political leadership—all areas in which we have badly faltered. This chapter documents the interplay between the political and scientific leadership in the country and its consequence on people’s lives. 

As the pandemic made its way through India, people turned to newspapers and prime-time talk shows to learn about the scale of threat and for guidance on how to weather this once-in-a-century health disaster. While the virus spread through India, we saw scientific discussion being led by political leaders while scientists stayed in the background. The take-over of scientific communication was evident from the early days when the health ministry became the epicentre of the COVID-19 response and NCDC, a public health agency set up for communicable disease surveillance and control, was nowhere to provide briefings or guidance. Four months into the pandemic and 1.2 million confirmed cases later, the government continued denying “community transmission” of the virus in India, an instance of political interference in the scientific determination of the stages of disease transmission, all in a compulsive need to maintain a positive political image. In November 2020, for the first time in independent India’s history, a major political party used the promise of “free vaccines” to woo voters ahead of one state’s elections at a time when not a single vaccine for COVID-19 had been approved. The announcement placed unreasonable pressure on scientific bodies to produce results in impractical timelines, raising safety concerns and doubts whether the required scientific processes have been adequately followed. This pressure was evident on the Indian Council of Medical Research to launch a vaccine by 15 August 2020 in a leaked letter that was widely circulated. At this point, Pfizer, Moderna and Astra Zeneca vaccines were still in phase III clinical trial. Covaxin, India’s indigenous vaccine candidate by Bharat BioTech, was not yet in the phase III trials to assess the vaccine’s efficacy.

Vidya Krishnan is a global health reporter and a Nieman Fellow. Her first book Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History will be published in February 2022 by PublicAffairs.

Sarah Nabia is currently pursuing a dual degree in public health and MBA at Bloomberg School of Public Health and Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University.

Keywords: Serum Institute of India Bharat Biotech Indian Council of Medical Research Ministry of Health and Family Welfare COVID-19 coronavirus coronavirus lockdown pandemic Narendra Modi